Does the fact that Rebecca Harding Davis uses her fiction to protest unfair social conditions weaken or strengthen the artistry of her prose? A good case can be made that it does neither – at least not necessarily. In other words, sometimes Davis conveys her protests in prose that is artistically effective, and sometimes she conveys it in prose that arguably falls flat.
Consider, for instance, the following sentences from the very beginning of her most famous work, "Life in the Iron-Mills":
A cloudy day: do you know what that is in a town of iron-works? The sky sank down before dawn, muddy, flat, immovable.
The first three words are effectively abrupt; they catch us by surprise. The rest of the sentence is also a bit surprising, since it addresses us directly and creates curiosity. However, one might also fault this part of the sentence for being too explicitly propagandistic and insufficiently subtle. Yet the succeeding two sentences seem quite effective artistically. One notes the alliteration of s’s and m’s, the implied personification of “sank down,” the play on “down”/“dawn,” and the effective list of three adjectives, the longest at the end. This (one might argue) is artistically effective writing, even though the effect of these sentences is to imply a subtle social protest.
Much less effective, however, is the following passage, which seems more concerned with making a point than with memorable writing:
There is a secret down here, in this nightmare fog, that has lain dumb for centuries: I want to make it a real thing to you. You, Egoist, or Pantheist, or Arminian, busy in making straight paths for your feet on the hills, do not see it clearly,—this terrible question which men here have gone mad and died trying to answer. I dare not put this secret into words.
Here the attempt to sound portentous can instead sound pretentious and affected. This, however, is at least narration. It is not spoken speech. Far worse, one might argue, is the following passage from much later in the story, in which Mitchell addresses May:
“Reform is born of need, not pity. No vital movement of the people's has worked down, for good or evil; fermented, instead, carried up the heaving, cloggy mass. Think back through history, and you will know it. What will this lowest deep—thieves, Magdalens, negroes—do with the light filtered through ponderous Church creeds, Baconian theories, Goethe schemes? Some day, out of their bitter need will be thrown up their own light-bringer,—their Jean Paul, their Cromwell, their Messiah."
Do real people really speak this way? Do they really throw around as many historical and philosophical allusions as are packed into these sentences? It is easy to accuse Harding here of letting her own reading weigh down her prose with unnecessary references to famous poets, philosophers, and historical figures. Far more effective, one might argue, are the two sentences quoted initially above, in which themes are implied rather than shouted from the rooftops.
It is not so much Harding's purposes, then, that are important as how she conveys those purposes.